Category Archives: Volunteering

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (includes Year in Pictures video)

Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a wonderful new year to all of you.  Our hearts are filled with gratitude on this day for all of our family and friends.  Thank you for all of your support this year, we look forward to an amazing 2012.

Hope you enjoy this video showing our last year in pictures.

Women Helping Women Be Their Best: Fresh Start Treasures

As new volunteers for Fresh Start Treasures, a charity resale shop in Phoenix, Gayle, Peggy, and I spotted each other from the parking lot.  Dressed presentably in black, with an eager smile, we recognized our own and gathered to wait for the shop to open, talking about what Fresh Start Women’s Foundation (FSWF) means to us.  Through FSWF, women have been helping women for almost 10 years.  Now, we were helping to launch a new chapter in the organization’s history, the opening of their resale shop.

Sharon volunteering at Fresh Start Treasures

Sharon volunteering at Fresh Start Treasures

What I realized throughout the day is that Fresh Start Treasures, the shop, is carrying out the organization’s mission in more ways than they could have imagined.  In the shop they have created a pleasant environment where women are gathering to look better, feel better, and connect with other women.  All volunteer run besides the store manager, the volunteers are where the magic happens.  We were bursting with enthusiasm as new customers came through the doors, personally welcoming them, offering to hold their bags so they could shop unburdened, and even giving them a personal tour of the store.  We had better customer service than you could find in any shopping experience at this time of year.  When a customer was willing to have assistance, we would go the extra mile.  Gayle acted as a personal shopper for one woman who was looking for an outfit for a holiday party.  They found an elegant skirt and jacket set that made her look like a million bucks.

Fresh Start Treasures Shop

Fresh Start Treasures shop

My feel good moment of the day was talking to a woman who explained through broken English how she traveled one and a half hours by bus to get to the store on a friend’s recommendation.  She walked in the door carrying her coat and another bag and I immediately welcomed her and offered to hold them at the counter as she shopped.  Her face lit up and she thanked me, saying she didn’t want to ask because many shops don’t allow that.  She spent at least an hour going through all of our racks, picking out an armload to try on.  Finally she came up to the counter just beaming with several new pieces of nice clothes.  As a bargain hunter myself, I could recognize that elation of finding an outfit that makes you look great and doesn’t cost you your entire paycheck.

Speaking of bargains…  Fresh Start Treasures doesn’t look like a resale shop when you walk in.  There’s a basic formula in most retail where the more white space and room between the garments you can see the higher the price will be.  Not here.  You can get like-new Chicos, JCrew, Banana Republic, and Ann Taylor for 50-75% off retail.  All of the volunteers were eyeing outfits, which is dangerous since the usual trap of working retail is that you spend your whole paycheck in the store.  Our $0 paycheck wasn’t going to stretch very far.

As you can tell from my enthusiasm, I really enjoyed my experience volunteering at Fresh Start Treasures.  It brought me back to working at Mountain Sports in Flagstaff, and made me realize that I actually love working in a clothing boutique.  That’s the great thing about volunteering, you can have your career and keep doing those odd jobs that you love in your spare time while helping the community.

To volunteer at Fresh Start Treasures, contact

The shop is located at 3949 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018


Closed Sunday & Monday

Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 10 am to 5 pm

Thursday 10 am to 7 pm

Saturday 10 am to 3 pm

Ideas for Giving Gifts that Give Back

I don’t know about you, but I still need to figure out what I am doing for Christmas gifts!  For many years, Jay and I have looked for ways to buy or make gifts in a thoughtful way that keeps on giving.  Here are some ideas for how you can give gifts that give back.  These are only a few examples; I would love to know your suggestions in the comments.

Already know that your dad wants golf clubs or your sister would love a new top?  One of the best ways to support your local community is by shopping at a local trusted retailer who supports your community and provides decent jobs.

Give of your time in honor of a friend – Why not volunteer and take pictures or write about the experience to share it with your loved one as their gift.  Or maybe you have a family member that could use your talents or assistance and you can give a coupon good for your time.

To find volunteer opportunities, search these sites:

Tewksbury/Blooms at Ronald McDonald House

Mom, sister (Nora), and Sharon at Ronald McDonald House last Christmas

Shop online like normal, but have a portion of the proceeds go to a nonprofit:

The sites below (and others like them) have set up agreements with retailers that when you use their site a portion of your purchase will go towards a nonprofit.

Let your recipient have some say in a donation:

  • Donors Choose Gift Cards – with these cards the recipient gets to a pick a project at a school to donate the gift card to.
  • Kiva Cards – with a Kiva card the recipient can choose which entrepreneur to invest in

Make a donation to your friend or family member’s favorite charity.

  • If you want to look up a nonprofit in your family member’s neighborhood or find out the stats on how a nonprofit spends their donations, check out GuideStar or Charity Navigator.

Make a donation to a charity in your friend’s name:

  • Heifer International – Heifer is always a fun one because you can buy an animal in the name of your friend that will go to a family in an impoverished country.
sharon with America the Beautiful Federal Lands Pass

One of our best Christmas gifts last year, an America the Beautiful Federal Lands Recreation Pass!

Two New Blog Mentions: The Roaming Pint & Roadtrip with Reason

This morning Jay and I are popular in the blogosphere, with two separate posts that talk about our trip.

First, if you remember back to June, we were in Ontario and we visited Becky Conlon.  At the time, Becky was just preparing to leave her job and her apartment to set out on a road trip across Canada volunteering along the way.  It’s crazy how time flies!  She is already done and writing all about it on her blog, Roadtrip with Reason.  This week she wrote about volunteering with the Muskoka Foundation in Pincher Creek, Alberta, which is a project we referred her for.  Hope we get to see Becky again at some point.

Second, as we started to really get serious about visiting microbreweries I went looking for beer bloggers.  Turns out there are a ton of great beer blogs out there.  One of my new favorites is The Roaming Pint.  Each week they write about people who travel and visit breweries, and this week they are featuring Jay and me!

Repairing Trails in the Largest Municipal Park in the U.S.

South Mountain Park

South Mountain Park, where Jay started his epic mountain bike ride last week, is the largest municipal park in the country.  It has over 50 miles of primary marked trails, and 100 of miles of social trails, many of which shouldn’t be there.  The park is home to natural and cultural treasures with rare flora and fauna and historic petroglyphs.  Surrounded by residents of the city of Phoenix, this park is very heavily used and in desperate need of some TLC.  Last Tuesday and Wednesday we had the pleasure of working with Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona to work on the Pima Wash Trail and Beverly Canyon Trail.

Jay and Sharon standing on new section of the Pima Wash Trail

Jay and Sharon standing on new section of the Pima Wash Trail

Using hand tools like the Macleod shown above, we fixed drainages, rehabilitated social trails, and rerouted a few sections of trail that were not well designed.  Surprisingly enough, water plays a huge role in trail sustainability in the desert.  It might not rain very often, but when it rains it pours and it doesn’t have a lot to slow it down in terms of vegetation so it just runs across the landscape, taking rocks and deadfall with it.  There were a few sections of trail where the path that the water follows and the path that the hikers follow were the same, creating deep ruts and wider trails where people tried to go around the rocks and ruts.  In these sections we worked to find a new path for the line that would be more sustainable.  In the sections that we re-routed we also had to rehabilitate the old trail so that people would know to use the new one and so that the desert could start to reclaim that previous path.

trail work on Pima Wash Trail

Volunteers creating a new more sustainable section of trail

Jay and I really enjoyed working on the reroutes, because you have a lot of room to be creative and you get to see a vast improvement in a short amount of time.

Jay carrying cholla balls to place at the beginning of the old trail to deter people

Our other main work involved using rocks to reinforce drainages.  By digging out a path for the water to go beside a trail and then layering it with rock, we hoped to keep the trails intact.  Rock work is always challenging.  In this section you have lots of great rock to work with, but hiding under almost every rock is a creepy crawly.  You learn to turn over rocks away from you and with great care. I saw more scorpions in two days than I have in at least the last year.  Once you have gathered the rocks it can be fun to build the drainage, because it is a lot like working on a puzzle.

For really large rocks we used a blanket so that we could carry it with two to four people

We really enjoyed working with Mike and the other crew leaders from VOAZ.  They have been doing trail work for many years and have developed some great techniques for building great trails and for working together safely and effectively.  I hope we have the opportunity to work with them again in the future.

petroglyphs in South Mountain Park

petroglyphs in South Mountain Park


Happy Thanksgiving!

This year we will be spending Thanksgiving with family in Phoenix, Arizona.  We are very thankful for the opportunity to be with immediate family over the holidays.  Tomorrow, Jay will keep his annual tradition of an all day endurance group ride called Flight of the Pigs.  We look forward to sharing photos.

Jay at Flight of the Pigs, 2009

Jay at Flight of the Pigs, 2009

In thinking about Thanksgiving I was reminded of the Thanksgiving stories about pilgrims gathering together with natives to celebrate the harvest with feast and community.  Twice this year we have had the privilege to volunteer in native  communities through the Muskoka Foundation.  This organization connects travelers to the indigenous communities that they travel through.

Starting your Christmas shopping?  You can support the Muskoka programs by buying a 2012 calendar  for only $12.00 featuring photographs that students around the world took during this year’s photography workshops.  We hosted two of those workshops, so there may be photos that we helped the students with.

Wacey, one of the Chinle photography participants

Wacey, one of the Chinle photography participants

Removing Tamarisk From Bright Angel Creek – A Volunteer Trip into the Grand Canyon

Michael (volunteer) hidden behind a large tamarisk tree

Michael (volunteer) hidden behind a large tamarisk tree

I don’t know what I thought removing tamarisk (an invasive non-native tree) would be like, but it wasn’t what I expected.  When you hear tamarisk, think riparian plant, a plant that loves to grow next to water.  Which means in order to remove it you need to be next to water and sometimes in the water.  Did I mention that the water is 40 degrees?  Oh, and this is a desert riparian zone, which means that most of the native plants surrounding the tamarisk are covered in thorns.  And the water is the Bright Angel Creek, which cuts through a deep narrow gorge in the middle of Grand Canyon.  Which is strikingly beautiful.  It is also difficult to navigate with the stream bed frequently disappearing into steep cliff faces, which lead to some delicate rock scrambles, climbing up while also trying to avoid prickly plants.  Basically, if my mom had known what is required in removing tamarisk she would have been worried all week.

Luckily we hiked in and out and worked for three days without any injuries beyond minor scrapes and sore muscles.

Mary Beth crossing Bright Angel Creek

Mary Beth crossing Bright Angel Creek

Did I mention that this trip was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Yea, that part was awesome.  It was a challenging but rewarding hike down into the canyon.  Six straight hours of walking down and down and down through different layers of rock until you reach the darkest steepest walls of granite schist in the inner gorge.  Unlike any other hike of that magnitude and remoteness, you are surprised to end up in a small village.  There are flush toilets, showers, telephones, cold beer, and restaurant reservations.  We were lucky enough to stay in the Trail Crew bunkhouse for the first three nights, which meant that we had a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and bathrooms.  The first night we almost jumped when the phone rang.  It was our crew leader’s husband calling with the scores from the football game.  Visiting the Grand Canyon as a volunteer is a special experience since you get to see behind the scenes and spend a week in the canyon for free.

Bright Angel Creek where we were removing tamarisk

Bright Angel Creek where we were removing tamarisk, you can see hikers on the trail river left and our group next to the creek river right.

After dinner we would go outside the bunkhouse and the cacti would be lit by the light from thousands of stars.  With narrow canyon walls we could only see a sliver of the night sky.  The canyon walls rose up like sky scrapers around us and I found myself feeling oddly claustrophobic in the middle of the great outdoors.  We fell asleep to the gurgling sounds of the creek and woke to the steady clomp of the mule train bringing in the day’s supplies to the canteen.

Della climbing back up to the North Kaibab Trail

Della climbing back up to the North Kaibab Trail

Our group of two National Park Service (NPS) employees, four volunteers, and two Student Conservation Association interns hiked down the South Kaibab Trail on Monday.  We spent Monday evening stretching our sore calf muscles and reviewing what we would be doing for the rest of the week, removing tamarisk along Bright Angel Creek.  Starting our day at 7:30 am, we worked in small teams, with the volunteers spotting the tamarisk and either pulling them out if they were just seedlings, or cutting them off at the base.  The NPS employees then painted the base of the tree with herbicide so that it would not re-sprout.  Tamarisk is an obstinate weed and several times we were cutting off new growth from previously treated trees.  After three full days of work our team removed over 400 tamarisk trees from the creek corridor.   It was far more than the NPS vegetation program staff were expecting to find and it felt satisfying to do such a thorough job.

Jay and Sharon at the South Rim having completed our hike up the South Kaibab Trail

Jay and Sharon at the South Rim having completed our hike up the South Kaibab Trail

Friday we hiked out the way we came in, up and up for almost eight hours.  Each step bringing us closer to civilization and all of the business that life on the rim entails.  I look forward to the next time we can go back below the rim, into that canyon, the immensity of which helps you recognize that you are just one small part of this great puzzle.

For more information on the Grand Canyon Vegetation Program click HERE.

To find volunteer opportunities at the Grand Canyon click HERE.



Building a Pump Track with COPMOBA in Montrose

Sharon at the pump track

A pump track is a short dirt track for bicycles that is designed to teach you how to use momentum and your whole body to propel yourself forward without pedaling.  Imagine how you can pump your legs on a swing to gain speed and you have the basic concept.  The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA) got approval from the Montrose City Council to build a pump track and skills area at Cerise Park in October and now, after only three days of volunteer labor the track is a reality, open for riding this past weekend.   The track was even featured on the front page of the Montrose Daily Press, with two photos of Jay.

Sharon with the other volunteers building pump track

The track was built that fast because of community support.  The city lent their equipment and operators.  Donny, the owner of Cascade Bicycles and a former project manager in construction, directed the crews.  Bill Harris, a COPMOBA Board Member who literally wrote the book on mountain biking around Montrose, recruited the volunteers.  Rob Brethouwer, founder of the Montrose Area Bicycle Alliance brought the crew lunch.  Each day at its peak we had a crew of a dozen volunteers all of whom cared about making Montrose a town that had a lot to offer bicyclists.  Several of the volunteers were older and they were excited about bringing kids and grandkids down to the track.  This project got everyone excited because they saw it as a fun venue for all ages, a place where young kids could get a feel for mountain biking by pedaling over rollers and experienced racers could build up speed and just fly over the rollers and into the next turn.

Jay and other volunteers building pump track

This project was particularly fun because it offered a chance to learn new things and problem solve.  When we showed up on Tuesday morning there were only three other volunteers.  We started on the first berm and realized that the dirt was so dry that it would just slough off and couldn’t be compacted.  We had water, but our only delivery method was to transfer the water from the truck into buckets and then use a bucket with holes in the bottom to sprinkle the water over the dirt.  It was a strenuous and messy process.  The project leaders quickly started brainstorming and calling around to get the right tools and pretty soon we had a hose and a pump and could spray down the track.  None of us had ever built a pump track before, but together we figured it out and learned a great deal along the way.  I hope I get an opportunity to build another track and put those new skills to use!

How To Find Volunteer Opportunities While Traveling in the U.S.

This is part of our (almost) weekly How To Series.

We are now volunteering an average of 15 hours per week while traveling by car throughout the United States and Canada.  We have volunteered for a wide variety of different projects and hopefully sharing how we get connected can help you get more involved.

Jay and Sharon at Materials for the Arts

Our volunteer project in New York with Materials for the Arts

First, a few caveats:

  1. One time volunteering is not a long term solution to any of our country’s challenges.  I encourage everyone to discover what they are passionate about and make a lasting commitment.
  2. If can often require a lot of planning on your part and on the part of the organization for just a few hours of volunteer work.  For me the planning and then sharing the experience afterwards is all part of the experience and makes it worthwhile.
  3. This advice may not be useful to non-U.S. citizens that are traveling in the U.S..  Some organizations have restrictions on how international visitors can volunteer their time.
sharon in big bad wolf costume

Volunteering at Wabi Sabi Thrift Store in Moab

What kind of volunteering can you get involved with on a one time or flexible basis?
  • Environmental clean ups
  • Trail building and maintenance
  • Sorting donations at a thrift store
  • Shelving and boxing food at a food bank
  • Assisting with nonprofit events such as festivals, charity runs, holiday galas, and silent auctions
  • National Days of Service  provide more diverse opportunities
This is not an exhaustive list, just some examples to get you thinking.
North Country Trail sign

Sign for National Trails Day, which we spent in Pennsylvania

What kind of volunteer will you NOT be able to do on a one time or flexible basis?

  • Mentoring
  • Tutoring kids in a school
  • Being an advocate for abused children
  • Working at a safe house for abused women
  • Holding a leadership role of any kind, such as being on a planning committee, a non-profit board, or coaching a team
The list above may seem obvious, but I think it is helpful to be aware of all the different ways you can be involved as a volunteer and recognize that some of these positions require a certain level of commitment and necessitate background checks and proper screening before you can get involved.
sharon and jay at the red balloon picnic

Jay and Sharon at the Red Balloon Picnic volunteer project with Phoenix Philanthropists

Ok, that said, here’s how I find volunteer opportunities while we are on the road.

  1. I start by looking for a volunteer center in the area we are headed.  Most volunteer centers are part of the HandsOn Network and you can look on their map to find one.
  2. Most volunteer center websites list a “project calendar” such as the one HERE on Volunteer Arlington’s website.
  3. I use the calendar to get an idea of which organizations are hosting events or use “date-specific” volunteers.  You can also browse organizations listed on the volunteer center website for more ideas or for a specific cause.  I usually do not sign up through the Volunteer Center website because it requires me to create an online account and since I am only passing through I do not want to deal with the hassle.
  4. Next I contact the organization directly.  I prefer email so that I have a paper trail.  I usually google the organization, review their website, and then find the name and email of the volunteer manager.
  5. I introduce myself and explain our trip and ask if we can either sign up for an established opportunity or if there is a one time or flexible opportunity that we can help with.  It is important to be specific and clear from the beginning that you are traveling and will not be able to make a weekly commitment.  It might help to list your skills or relevant experience.
If I do not find a volunteer center in the area I usually just google something like, “volunteer Grand Junction November 2011″.  By using the town name and the date I am more likely to find one time opportunities that it is easy to plug into.
Another option for event volunteering is to look on the Visitor Center or Chamber of Commerce website for a listing of local events.  Many local events are actually fundraisers for nonprofits and you can get contact information to ask about helping out.
If you know someone in the area you are traveling to they can also often help connect you to a local organization.  When you are introduced by a local that knows the organization it is much easier to get signed up to volunteer.
Also, if you are traveling but are interested in volunteering in one place for a week, month, or even a year there are a lot more options.
Sharon at Trail building in Prescott

Sharon at a trail building day in Prescott, Arizona

Organizations that have week-long volunteer projects:

Sharon cutting and Jay assisting on a backcountry trip with Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation

Organizations that have “volunteer vacations” you have to pay for:
If you have other suggestions for how to volunteer in the United States while traveling, please let me know by commenting on this post.

Got Trail? Learning from COPMOBA

Fruita desert

North Fruita desert

Five hours after we put the trail tools back in the truck we finally got back from our trail building volunteer project with COPMOBA.  When I was a volunteer manager, I would measure the success of our volunteer leadership team by how late the volunteers hung around afterwards swapping stories and brainstorming new ideas.  After fixing a new trail at 18 Road in Fruita we spent at least 1 hour hanging out in the parking lot and then headed into town to grab pizza and a free beer at the Hot Tomato Cafe (a local restaurant owned by mountain bikers).  This is a very successful club with a lot to teach us.

Bike trailer used to haul trail tools, photo by Giselle Smith

Bike trailer used to haul trail tools, photo by Giselle Smith

For one, this club knows what it is about and they walk their talk.  Sustainable singletrack.  In their mission statement they are specific, they are about building and maintaining sustainable singletrack.  When we got to the parking lot on Saturday they were loading a Bob trailer with trail tools so that we could ride out to the work site.  WOAH, I thought, these guys are hard core and resourceful.  It sent a great message, as we rode our bikes out to the work site we passed recreational riders who saw the trailer hauling tools and knew what we were about.  We got a lot of thank yous during the day and a few questions from riders about how they could get involved.  Awesome!

COPMOBA receives grant from REI for Fruita trails

COPMOBA recently received funding from REI to build an interpretive mountain bike trail in Fruita

The trail we worked on was a new trail they had built with approval from the BLM (who owns the land).  As part of the 18 Road trail system they are building trails with good flow.  IMBA refers to this style as flow country trails which are designed specifically to take mountain bikers on a “singletrack joyride”.  I love this development in trail building because the trails are not prohibitively technical for beginner riders, but are fun for all levels.  We had the opportunity to fix two of the turns which had originally been built with an increasing radius and therefore would force the rider to slow down and turn in too tightly instead of being able to flow from one turn to the next.

COPMOBA Crew working on Down Uppity Trail, Photo By Giselle Smith

COPMOBA Crew working on Down Uppity Trail, Photo By Giselle Smith

The video below shows some of the trails in the 18 Road system:

COPMOBA crew working on the Lower Uppity, photo by Giselle Smith

COPMOBA crew working on the Lower Uppity, photo by Giselle Smith

Being on the trail with COPMOBA, I was reminded of proper trail etiquette.  18 Road is a busy trail system and we encountered a lot of riders.  Depending on how much we had torn up the trail, sometimes riders would need to wait till it was all clear and other times they would need to dismount and walk their bike through the section.  The COPMOBA members instructed riders to actually pick up their bikes so that they wouldn’t leave tire tracks beside the trail.  They also talked about the importance of riders sticking to the center line and not going off trail to pass or for any other reason.  It’s about sustainable singletrack.  They are going to build a trail that can handle a lot of riders, but the environment can only afford it if you can stay on that trail.

Jacob and Jay working on Down Uppity, photo by Giselle Smith

Jacob and Jay working on Down Uppity, photo by Giselle Smith

Grand Junction and Fruita are mountain bike towns.  COPMOBA sees a lot of community support and we were thanked for our time and effort by free stuff from supportive businesses.  Free beer and clothing – what a great way to recognize and retain volunteers!  I hope we can do more with COPMOBA in the future.

Sharon sporting COPMOBA shirt and hat

showing off my new shirt and hat from COPMOBA